Saving Egypt's Aragoz puppet shows

Nevine El-Aref , Friday 7 Dec 2018

The Aragoz puppet show, Egypt’s oldest and most beloved form of theatre, has been placed on UNESCO’s List of Intangible Cultural Heritage in Need of Urgent Safeguarding

The aragoz

After seven years of effort, Egypt registered its Aragoz traditional puppet show on UN cultural body UNESCO’s List of Intangible Cultural Heritage in Need of Urgent Safeguarding during the 13th session of the Intergovernmental Committee for the Safeguarding of the Intangible Cultural Heritage held early this week in Mauritius.

The UNESCO Intangible Cultural Heritage list was drafted in 2003 to recognise, protect and promote the different cultural practices of member nations. The list is made up of an array of oral traditions, languages, performing arts, social practices and rituals and philosophies, as well as traditional craftsmanship. It recognises the instruments, artefacts, objects and spaces that are used to perform or practise these cultural forms.

According to Egyptian Ambassador to France and Permanent Representative to UNESCO Ehab Badawi, the move comes within the framework of joint efforts by the Egyptian ministries of foreign affairs and culture. He highlighted the importance of the 2003 UNESCO Convention for the Safeguarding of the Intangible Cultural Heritage, confirming the importance that Egypt attaches to this convention because of the country’s rich intangible heritage.

Egypt has previously registered two of its expressions of intangible heritage on the convention’s List. In 2008, the Al-Sirah Al-Hilaliya epic was inscribed on the Representative List of the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity. This oral poem, also known as the Hilali Epic, recounts the saga of the Bani Hilal Bedouin tribe and its migration from the Arabian Peninsula to North Africa in the 10th century. The tribe held sway over a vast area of central North Africa for more than a century before being annihilated by its Moroccan rivals. 


As one of the major epic poems that developed within the Arabic folk tradition, the Hilali is the only epic still performed in its integral musical form. Once widespread throughout the Middle East, it has disappeared from everywhere except Egypt. 

In 2016, the Tahteeb, or stick game, was inscribed on the same list. This game has been known since ancient Egyptian times as a form of martial arts. Its role has since changed to that of a festive game, but some of the symbolism and values associated with the practice remain. Performed in front of an audience, it involves a brief, non-violent interchange between two adversaries, each wielding a long stick while folk music plays in the background. Complete control must be exercised as no striking is allowed. 

The rules of the game are based on values such as mutual respect, friendship, courage, strength, chivalry and pride. Tahteeb is practised in public and private social settings. Sometimes competitions are held to encourage new players and special evenings involving different governorates are held that can last for almost a week.

During discussion at the committee meeting held in Mauritius to register the Aragoz puppets, Egypt pointed out this was an ancient form of Egyptian theatre using traditional hand puppetry. Performances are highly popular events, during which the puppeteers remain hidden inside a small portable stage while an assistant interacts with the puppets and crowd. The Aragoz takes its name from the main puppet, whose distinctive voice is created with a voice modifier.


Performers and audience interact dynamically throughout the shows, which have a comic and entertaining atmosphere, and practitioners must be skilled in manipulating and maintaining the puppets, as well as in improvisation and music. The shows explore a variety of themes relating to daily life, with a recurring theme being the struggle against corruption. 

According to the UNESCO website, the Aragoz “used to be presented by groups of travelling performers, who moved from one folk celebration to another. However, when these performances began to dwindle, performers and their assistants settled permanently in fixed places, mostly in Cairo.” 

“The viability of the practice is threatened by the changing social, political, legal and cultural circumstances of its enactment, an overall decrease in interest among younger generations and the advanced age of its active practitioners. The number of surviving practitioners has diminished while many of those who once-performed stories have now disappeared.”


IMPORTANCE OF THE ARAGOZ: Minister of Culture Ines Abdel-Dayem described the UNESCO move as “a great achievement and a victory for the protection of Egypt’s intangible heritage.”

She said that Egypt was particularly rich in intangible heritage, and the ministry was working hard to register more of it.

Mohamed Baghdadi, a member of the Folk Arts and Intangible Heritage Committee at the Supreme Council of Culture, told Al-Ahram Weekly that registering the Aragoz on the UNESCO list would support Egyptian efforts to protect and preserve the treasures of this art threatened by the development of computer games and entertainment. It would also help in the creation of workshops to develop the skills of puppeteers and train new generations in it, he added.

“It is the most important day I have ever lived. Finally, my dream has come true,” Nabil Bahgat, a professor of theatre at Helwan University and founder of the Wamda (flash of light) group for the Aragoz, told the Weekly.

Bahgat said that his journey to register the Aragoz on the UNESCO list started as early as 2011 when he established a school to teach the new generations the skills and practice of the Aragoz. However, in 2014, the file was refused. It was then completed and re-submitted through the Egyptian Society for Folk Traditions headed by professor of traditional and folkloric art at Cairo University Ahmed Morsi.

“The Aragoz is my life, and my interest in it began many years ago and has lasted until this moment. I am committed to reviving these arts, since I believe that folklore is one of the sources that constitutes the Egyptian consciousness and the history of Egypt,” Bahgat said. 

He related that when he was a child his grandfather would draw his attention to the sayings he used to repeat, including proverbs, tales, anecdotes and ballads that he at first could not understand. However, he later realised that his grandfather’s words involved a part of the history of Egypt. “This bolsters the view that folklore is a reliable source of history since documented history does not pay attention to the marginalised who are the actual manufacturers of events,” Bahgat said, adding that a desire to understand Egypt’s identity had led him to pay attention to its folklore.

Bahgat’s fascination with Egypt’s folk arts and his belief in the importance of this cultural heritage and our capacity to revive it has led him to document and revive the Aragoz. However, his task has not been easy.

He started a long journey in search of Aragoz practices or puppeteers in order to document their stories and the names of their puppets, eventually establishing the first archive for the Aragoz. He has introduced 19 documentaries on the Aragoz as well as gathered 500 puppets from different villages in Egypt and created the Wamda performance group.

Bahgat has written a book on the Aragoz in which he highlights the quest for documentation on this fading art form, showcasing what’s left of this oral heritage as well as the people behind it. One of the unique aspects of the book is how it documents the Aragoz scripts and the names of the Aragoz performers.

He said that the Aragoz had once been a treat for children in many districts of Cairo. Upon hearing the puppeteer’s whistle, people would gather round, and an eager audience would cluster at windows to watch his act. The Aragoz was also a popular entertainment for children’s birthdays. It was the perfect mouthpiece for Egyptian criticism of the government, politics, and the status quo during ancient times and beyond. 

Bahgat said that some scholars argue that the name Aragoz has roots as far back as the ancient Egyptians, when Ara meant “to do” and Goz “words”. The Aragoz is a long-standing artistic practice that cannot be traced precisely, however, as historians and scholars have argued that the Egyptian Aragoz is a version of the Turkish Karagoz introduced to the country when the Ottomans conquered Egypt in the 16th century. 

The Turkish Karagoz (“black eyes”) shadow puppet, the name of a wooden puppet usually dressed in red, is derived from Qaraqosh, a vizier during the reign of the sultan Saladin in Egypt, who was known for his harshness and bad judgement. 

Initially, Aragoz himself was made of wood, as well as his wife and other characters such as the policeman and the doorman, either by an Aragoz puppet master, such as Mohamed Farran who died 30 years ago, or by a professional carpenter. When television became a main source of entertainment, the few performers left of Aragoz used plastic dolls to replace the traditional wood.

The Aragoz’s voice is particularly unique and is like a metallic whistle sound created by the al-amana, a metal device the player holds in his mouth. Aragoz performances last an average of 18 acts and range between politics and social issues.

The acts usually start with singing, and shade into dialogue between the puppeteer and the dolls, leaning on archetypical characters and a simple storyline with a moral.

Bahgat believes that the Aragoz is particularly important as an expression of authenticity. “Our homes were once the places where we made our food and beverages, and the toys we played with were all handmade, like kites and dolls,” Bahgat said, adding that this meant being “creative and proactive in our own realm”.

The first official Aragoz group was created by the Egyptian government in 1957. In 1959, writer Salah Jahine’s play Al-Shater Hassan was performed at the Arab Music Conservatory by the Theâtre de marionettes du Caire, the Egyptian Puppet Theatre.

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